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Where's Williams? Life after Prestatyn

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November proved a quite month without the MLS play-offs to worry about, although we did celebrate Thanksgiving as a family and as a staff team - something that managed to distract Rachel from her books for long enough to eat.

The University of Washington course was tough going, but in the opening weeks she had really thrown herself into things and was managing to juggle motherhood with the mountain of work she was bringing home. Bethan and Rebecca were noticing the difference, but for girls so young they seemed to understand, and my wife was already regaling me with tales of her limited time on campus. It was hard, but she was happy.

 

Of course, the quiet was always going to be limited with two girls coming up nine and seven, but they had plenty of school work to be getting on with, and I was given the task of preparing for Christmas with Rachel’s head in her books. Amid all the shopping and card-writing however, I did manage to land a ticket to the MLS Cup final courtesy of my employers, which was a pleasant day out in Colorado.

 

Sadly for the partisan home support, their beloved Rapids choked on the big occasion, going down 2-0 to a Philadelphia Union side which claimed its fourth title in the last seven years - winning every other year without fail. As I watched their players line up to receive their medals and hoist the trophy high, I wondered whether my Sounders would ever be able to create such a dynasty. If the Williams clan was around for the long haul, that would ultimately be the aim.

 

Three days later would be the Waiver Draft for those players whose contracts were winding down, and as I was running through the lists with Chris, one name jumped out at us both.

 

Chris, are you seeing what I’m seeing here?”

 

“Where are you?”

 

“Second page, half a dozen down.”

 

Cano?

 

Cano. Listen, can you get LA on the phone?”

 

“I suspect they’ll be in talks, but definitely. Give me a few minutes.”

 

Unbelievably, Homero Cano was coming up for waivers. For those unfamiliar with the name, Cano had just claimed the league’s Golden Boot with 28 goals in 32 games, and had scored against just about every side in America. Technically, he was inferior to both Shannon and Valdez, but that wasn’t going to stop me trying to get him on board.

 

“Right then Owain,” said a beaming Chris as he stepped back into my office. “Cano is refusing to re-sign with LA - he doesn’t get on with the coaches down there - but isn’t keen on going abroad either. They’re resigned to losing him.”

 

“So they’re listening?” This sounded too good to be true.

 

Owain, they’re listening and it’d be peanuts. Minimum bid and a couple of draft picks and he’d be ours for a year at least.”

 

“Is anyone else talking to them?”

 

“It doesn’t sound like it, their guy sounded pleased with the idea so I don’t suppose anyone else has thought of it. Green light?”

 

Chris, if we don’t sign him and someone picks him for free at waivers I’ll kick myself all year. Do it, and do it now.”

 

Whether it was a loophole nobody else had thought to exploit, or whether the process of scouring the expiring contract markets hadn’t struck MLS bosses yet I wasn’t sure, but for just $100,000 and two late-round picks in future Supplemental Drafts, we secured the services of the league’s top scorer. It was the perfect deal.

 

By the end of the day, we’d arranged a similar deal with Chicago - although only one pick was needed this time - to land 25-year-old right-back Matt Lawton, and I could barely contain my delight. Had we not noticed, both players could have been taken for nothing by our rivals. Instead, they’d be Sounders for the next 12 months at least.

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The 10 days before Christmas - hence my and Rachel’s determination to get things wrapped up well in advance - was draft time, although the marquee SuperDraft would not take place until the new year. We had waivers for expiring contracts, then two rounds of re-entries for those not picked up first time round. If players weren’t picked by the time Santa came to town, chances are they weren’t cut out for MLS football.

In the first selection process, we added a strong centre-back to our ranks for nothing. Sporting Kansas City had decided that 19-year-old Josh Lisi was not good enough for their first team, despite the scouts placing him third on our depth chart. Assuming we made the move to a more conventional tactic next season, he’d be valuable backup.
 

At re-entries, we gambled. Paul Salcedo was a US international in his favoured holding role, but had missed the last eight months with knee ligament problems, and as such the champions Philadelphia were prepared to let him leave at the end of his deal. I had spotted him in the previous draft and noticed that nobody had taken him, and so decided to speak personally with his manager, Jason Kreis.

 

“Hi Jason, it’s Owain Williams here in Seattle. First of all, congratulations on the championship - it’s quite a team you’ve got there.”

 

“Thanks Owain, it’s always nice when a plan comes together. I don’t much like the play-offs myself, but if you win people tend not to believe you. Tell me, what can I do for you?”

 

“Well, I was wondered if you might be able to tell me anything about Paul Salcedo.

 

“Ah, Paul, yes. Poor guy. He’s had a hard time of it for the last two years Owain, the man just can’t stay fit. Three or four games here, five there and then he’s injured. He’s spent more time on the Disabled List than playing, that’s the problem.”

 

“Talented?”

 

“Oh, no doubt - that’s why he’s got caps after all. But when you’ve got limited squad space and are aiming for titles, we can’t carry sicknotes all year. He’ll work for you though, no doubt about that - lad’s a worker.”

 

“Do know what sort of numbers he’s on

 

“Sure do - senior minimum, standard contract.”

 

That was a surprise. A 24-year-old full international on $1,200 a week? Even with his injury problems, it seemed too good to turn down.

 

“Thanks Jason, that’s helpful. Listen, can you tell Paul we’ll be taking him at re-entry? It doesn’t sound like there’s anybody else coming in for him, and we’re going to give him a chance. It’ll put him in the shop window if nothing else.”

 

“Will do Owain, he’ll be thrilled I’m sure. Take care buddy, please speaking to you.”

 

The following day, we officially claimed Paul as a Sounder, and the league transferred his Philadelphia contract to a Seattle one. It’s not every day you get international quality for nothing, even if they are a little injury-prone.

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Christmas came and went in an absolute blur. A whirlwind of presents, overindulgence and good will, although part of me was looking forward to getting back to the office and a sense of normality. Rachel, as ever, played her part superbly, although with midterm exams coming up in mid-January, Bethan and Rebecca were occasionally asked to stop pestering their mum for a little while. When framed as homework, they understood well enough - one of the joys of them growing up.

Even the run-up on the club front was mad, and not just because of the impending SuperDraft. With my scouts out across the country scanning the college game for the next big thing - through our trades we had managed to secure the second and third overall picks on the big day - I was constantly receiving updates as to where my priorities should lie.

 

However, the draft was not the only place to pick up new talent, as our signings of Salcedo, Cano and Lawton had already proven. With a nation as big as America, there was undoubtedly value to be had out there - you only had to look in the right places.

 

As such, we made two new acquisitions before 2024 rolled around, one from the other side of the country, and one from right beneath our noses. The latter was an exciting young talent at just 17 years of age, striker Gary Williams doing more than enough at the Sounders Academy to earn a first professional contract. After years of paying to play, he’d be earning just shy of $1,000 each week on a reserve contract, and my coaching staff had high hopes for his future.

 

Also arriving was Paul Tierney, a goalkeeper who was inexplicably allowed to leave the New York Cosmos for nothing. At just 23 he had plenty of space in which to improve, and yet already his skillset was impressive enough that he would likely take over from Johnson as our first choice between the sticks. For no outlay and a wage packet that wouldn’t break the bank, he was almost a risk-free option to have.

 

Yet in my meeting with the ownership committee, I had spoken of my desire to trim the squad rather than add yet more players that MLS would not allow us to use. So, with that in mind, New England’s interest in Jordan Cunningham was particularly helpful. Even using three central attacking midfielders, he was second reserve behind Javier Cardenas to the starting trio of Cacau, Klepikov and London Leonard, and while he had strong potential he was never likely to be a world-beater.

 

So when the Revs offered $400k and their first pick in the 2025 SuperDraft - a concession I never expected them to agree to when Chris began haggling - it was a relatively easy decision to make. A first-round pick for effectively a fifth-choice player makes good business sense to me, and so Jordan packed his bags for Boston to line up against us in the coming year. I had never had any problems with him on the training pitch or as a person, but sentiment simply cannot be allowed to get in the way.

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Chris, it’s New Year’s Eve, shouldn’t you be out drinking somewhere?”

I could hardly believe it when my front office’s number flashed up at 3pm on the last day of the year, but I assumed it had to be something important.

 

“I’m sorry Owain, but I’ve just had an interesting conversation with a man named Dmitri Kalpagin. You won’t know the name, so I’ll spare you the story - Klepikov’s agent.”

 

Klepikov? What does he want?”

 

“I suspect a better contract. He gave me two pieces of information. The first - his client has managed to injure himself skiing in the Ural Mountains. He’s back home with family - fair enough - but word has it he’d had a bit to drink and decided the slopes were the best place for him.”

 

“Idiot, what an absolute idiot. How much do we pay him to sit in our physio room? What’s he done to himself?”

 

“I’ll answer your second question first Owain, because your first is an interesting one. He’s done the same calf he did at the start of the season, and possibly his knee as well. We’re looking at four months minimum, possibly six.”

 

“Six months? Bloody hell Chris, this other news had better be an improvement.”

 

“Well, it might be. How highly do you rate your Russian, Owain?”

 

“He should have lit up the league when he came here, he really should - he’s got the ability for sure. But in reality? His first injury was unlucky but this is just stupid, he’s our highest paid player by a long chalk, and he hasn’t done as well as Cacau or even Leonard and Cardenas. Then there’s the fact his calves are made of glass, he’ll have had six months on the sidelines - I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t heard of the man to be honest.”

 

“Would you, for example, be willing to sell?”

 

Chris could sense my frustration and was toying with me, his voice becoming more playful as my anger rose.

 

“Sell? I’d take him to Russia myself if he wasn’t already there! It’s a shame we put that stupid release clause in the deal, what was it, $35m? Nobody’s going to take him for that.”

 

“What if I told you his agent has had interest from within MLS?

 

“I’d tell you to get me as much information as you could and see what we can get for him.”

 

“Good, that’s what I’ve done. Houston want a playmaker, and they want Klepikov. They can take his wages, it forces them to use a DP slot, and we might be able to play hardball.”

 

That was interesting. Shifting a reckless, injured big earner onto a rival club and holding all the cards at the negotiating table? We had to try.

 

Chris, put your drink down and call Houston now. Go in high - too high - and as long as they don’t try and screw us over they can have him. Work your magic - I’m not paying a man $70k to go skiing drunk and wreck his leg, let him go to Texas if he wants.”

 

An hour later, after what I can only assume was some intense negotiation between the two front offices, Chris called me back with a deal. Just short of $2m in allocation funds, a first round pick in draft after this, and a permanent international slot to play with. That was the Dynamo’s attempt to haggle down for a man with one good leg and a vodka problem.

 

“What did you start them at Chris?

 

“Four million, two picks and the slot. They think they’ve done well.”

 

“Let them think it my friend. Seal it before they change their mind.”

 

With that, my first marquee signing as Sounders boss was allowed to slip quietly away to Houston. It was a sobering decision to have to make - acknowledging my own failure in the transfer market - but on New Year’s Eve it was also a triumph of negotiation, and the right end to a sorry episode. Something to drink to at any rate.

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January was a stressful month in the Williams household. Bethan and Rebecca both needed a significant amount of coaxing to get them back to school on the first day of the new term, while Rachel was spending more and more time in her books until the final week of the month, when midterms hit. On my part, I was spending far too much time with Chris Henderson, as the flurry of transfer activity reached its peak.

Before the SuperDraft, we moved on two fringe players to other clubs in a continuation of my bid to trim the fat from the squad. Kyle Miller and Bryan Pacheco, the latter of whom failed to make a single appearance in the previous campaign, caught the eye of New England and New York respectively, and their combined deals saw us land $700k, a 2026 first round pick, and the three-year use of an international slot. New England seemed particularly fond of my cast-offs as, just a few days after the big draft, they took young defender Lewis Davies for $600k and a second-round pick in two years’ time - a vast overpayment in my book.
 

On SuperDraft day itself, I came home happy with my selections - although ESPN somewhat harshly judged my picks to be worthy of a ‘D’ grade, I was content that my scouting team had done their homework. Particularly satisfying was the capture of 21-year-old Floridian defender Hunter Wright, who more than made up for the departure of Davies and would likely battle it out with fellow arrival Josh Lisi for the bench spot.

 

Joining him was a goalkeeper which meant Tom Johnson’s desire to leave the club could be fulfilled, as Fresno resident Brent Sassano moved up north to join us to try and wrestle the starter’s gloves away from Tierney. Finally, we plugged a gap at right-back with the capture of Gus West with our second-round pick, a promising talent who would spend some time as a reserve before trying to fight his way into the line-up.

 

One week later, the supplemental draft passed us by completely, with not a single player deemed worthy of our attention by the scouts. In a way, I was rather pleased with the outcome - I wanted to keep the Sounders an exclusive club, and that meant signing only the best. Stragglers had no reason to be accepted.

 

But the big news was not the drafting of three college hopefuls, nor was it the departure of a handful of fringe players over to the East Coast. Instead, two days after the SuperDraft, the Seattle Sounders made one of the biggest signings in their history. And we didn’t even have to break the bank.

 

For many years MLS has been saddled with a reputation over in Europe as being something of a retirement league, a chance for those whose legs had given up to earn one last payday against inferior opposition. Perhaps for some it was true, and we did that tag no favours whatsoever in snapping up a 34-year-old, but this was no ordinary 34-year-old. This was a World Cup winner.

 

And not just a World Cup winner, but a two-time World Cup winner, and a man who had scored a goal in the final itself. This was a man who, after years as the darling of Dortmund, saw Arsenal break their transfer record to sign him, lead the Gunners to three Premier League wins and a Champions League title, and then return to his homeland in a hugely controversial move to Bayern Munich, where he joined the Bundesliga’s dominant force.

 

This was a man who, even at 34, would wow his team-mates in training and see his shirts fly off the shelves. This was a man capable of creating a goal from nothing, a playmaking genius in every sense of the term. Agile, accurate, he was a visionary unlike anyone else to grace a Sounders jersey.

 

Yes, two days after the SuperDraft, after a week of intense negotiations behind the scenes and to the shock of the footballing world, Seattle Sounders announced the free transfer signing of none other than Marco Reus.

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Thanks guys, I was thrilled when Reus proved interested enough to sign. The beauty of the deal was that he didn't even need DP terms - I assume because of his age, he just wanted a game.
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Such was the impact of Reus’ arrival in Washington that the rest of our business flew firmly under the radar through January and February. Our final squad list needed to be submitted with league HQ before the first day of March, and the fact that the furore over the German kept everything else quiet suited me and Chris down to the ground.

As such, the media barely picked up on yet another one of our players heading over to New England, as Jack Burt earned us a handy $400k, future SuperDraft pick - the Revs were running out by this point - and a permanent international slot. They missed Tom Johnson get his wish and leave Seattle, moving for $600k to Chivas USA, and Cheyne Robinson’s season-long loan to Jide’s old pals at Minnesota United.

 

One or two managed to pick up on the fact that Romanian outfit CFR Cluj matched the $5m release fee tucked away in Julio Parra’s contract, meaning that we would begin the MLS season without one of our key men in midfield. However, just three days later we welcomed the waived Carlos Antonio Camacho from LA, who not only meant we swapped one Mexican for another, but also upgraded our depth - whereas our departed friend played holding midfield, Camacho was also happy to fill in at right-back and in the heart of defence with equal proficiency.

 

Leaving on squad registration day were three youngsters with unfulfilled potential - Peter Levey, Todd Clark and Jordan Finch - and in for the bargain price of $250k from Standard Liege came powerful forward Bheka Sibandze, a Belgian of Swazi heritage - who, along with Valdez, Shannon and Cano, formed one of the most fearsome striking quartets in the country. As for the three youngsters, nobody wished to see them go, but in a league allowing just 20 senior salaries to be registered, we simply couldn’t afford to hand spaces to players more ideally suited to the reserve game.

 

While all this was going on, we put together a short series of six warm-up matches against local opposition from around the state. Although the opposition was weak, our tactics were largely experimental, and so to go out of it with a perfect record of six wins, 16 goals scored and none conceded was very pleasing. After trying a few combinations, Jide and I decided to begin the season by dropping one of the three attacking midfielders into the defensive line, resulting in a 4-2-2-2 formation not dissimilar to the Brazilian ‘magic box’ of a few decades previous. If we achieved a fraction of their success, I would be a happy man.

 

At home, however, things were not all bright and rosy. While I was busy making sure the media had the latest line on our new World Cup winner, Rachel was trying to figure out whether or not she’d made the right decision. After years of being a big fish in relatively small ponds, her first foray into deeper waters came back with mixed results. While the majority of her midterms came back with celebratory tones, one exam came back with ‘D.’ She hadn’t had a ‘D’ before, and she didn’t know what to do with it.

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“But Owain, can’t you see? I’ve failed. What’s the point of spending all my time reading all these books if I can’t actually do the work?”

Rachel had not taken her lower mark well, and was on the brink of throwing in the towel on her MBA. Never mind the fact that she had passed her other exams and assignments comfortably - this one hurt.

 

“I don’t get it. I mean, I did the reading, I learned the arguments, I know the application was correct. I just don’t know what they wanted more from me.”

 

“I won’t pretend I do either darling, I know how much work you put into those papers. What do you want to do about it?”

 

“I just… I don’t know. If I knew it would be easy, wouldn’t it? What I want to do is tell the lecturer where he can shove his economic models and never set foot in that building again, but that seems a little counterproductive doesn’t it?”

 

“It does, yes.”

 

“And it’d mean he won, the self-righteous little git. No, I’ll stick it out and do better next time round, but if I disappear for a few days before the exams then don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.”

 

“And if you head off to your exams with a shotgun under your arm?”

 

Finally a joke broke the ice, and Rachel’s tears began to disappear.

 

“Just don’t get in my way when I leave.”

 

A few more minutes passed by, and I managed to convince her that, despite the ‘D’ grade on one paper, she had performed very well on the others, and was on for a very respectable GPA if she carried on through. Besides, once she had the qualification, nobody was going to look much further than the University of Washington logo on her CV anyway.

 

“You’re probably right. And besides, what am I going to do with an MBA anyway? I’ll be nearly 50 by the time I graduate, I only started the course as an interesting way to get out and about.”

 

“Exactly - your track record hardly means you need their academic approval. I know now probably isn’t the time to be thinking about this sort of thing, but I’ll ask anyway - do you think you will ever end up working again?”

 

Rachel wasn’t expecting the question, but the look she gave me told me she’d been having those thoughts herself. After all, with what she’d previously told me about loneliness and the girls spending most of their time at school, it made little sense for my wife to keep herself cooped up at home all day.

 

“I don’t know, but I think I’d like to. I’m getting older, but not that old - maybe I’d set up a consultancy or something similar? Flexible, on my own terms, that sort of thing.”

 

“Sounds good - you made self-employment work in Adelaide.”

 

“I did, didn’t I? You know what Owain Williams, I think I might be onto something here…”

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Regardless of my wife’s latest scheme, I had a football team to manage and a new season to kick off. Whereas last time the opening fixtures saw us in Los Angeles and the home of the would-be winners of the Western Conference, this time things were a little closer to home. Fixture number one would be in front of a full house at the Amazon Arena, as my new magic box lined up against none other than local rivals Portland.

With the Sound Wave in full swing, Jide at my side and Marco Reus making his Sounders debut, I was oddly confident. Yes, we had ditched the formation which saved us from embarrassment last year, but the new set-up seemed that bit more solid and certainly more balanced. We had strengthened at the back - particularly at right-back, where we struggled after Miller’s departure in the last campaign - and in attack, and as the game kicked off I felt good about our chances.

 

What I did not expect was for us to blow the Timbers to bits within the opening exchanges. From the first minute we were firmly on the front foot, taking the game to the visitors at every opportunity. We had already forced three saves and struck a post when the opening goal finally came 15 minutes in, Pedro Valdez sliding in to meet a low cross and turn it beyond the goalkeeper. Ten minutes later the scorer turned provider for Jon Shannon to power home a half-volley, and we were running away with things.

 

But we weren’t done - not by a long way. Straight from the kick-off we pressured Portland into turning over possession, and in three quick passes we were in again. Cosgriff found Cacau, he laid a ball into the path of Reus, and our debutant’s pass was drilled in by Shannon for his second goal in as many minutes. We were flying, and when Valdez added a fourth before the interval the game was already over.

 

But last year we had hit five past the Galaxy only to struggle to pick up even a single point for the next several weeks, so I was keen not to get too carried away in the post-match frenzy. The media were keen to focus on Reus’ role in the win - he did assist two of the goals, after all - but I was insistent that our season would not be defined by the victory. We had a nice headstart in the Cascadia Cup, but it was only one game.

 

As if to prove my point, a week later we travelled to Real Salt Lake and put in a completely opposite performance. In fairness the 4-1 scoreline was largely due to the individual brilliance of home striker Victor Gonzalez, who claimed a hat-trick, but we looked a completely different team to the one that had played at home seven days previously. We were a little unfortunate - with the score at 3-1, Cardenas saw a goal disallowed for a marginal offside call just moments before Gonzalez wrapped things up - but we deserved nothing, and I feared the worst as I recalled the early-season slump of our previous campaign.

 

I knew that while I had the owners’ confidence, they were all sensible business people, and watching their Sounders lose five or six games in a row for the second season running would see a very public falling out between the football club and Owain Williams. We would welcome FC Dallas to Seattle in our next league fixture, and it would be a real test of our ability to bounce back. If this one defeat made us crumble, I would soon be looking for alternative employment.

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Against Dallas and back at home, we couldn’t have wished for a better start. With just four minutes on the clock, Nathan Rodriguez broke free down the left, whipped in a low cross which Valdez managed to miss completely, and there was Cacau racing in to meet the ball and send it crashing beyond the goalkeeper.

On paper, Dallas had one of the strongest teams in MLS, however where they had often faltered in the past was in their lack of discipline, and so as time ticked on with them trailing, their frustrations began to materialise on the field. Challenges came in a split-second late, the foul count started to rise, and by the interval they had two men in the referee’s notebook already.

 

By full time that number would grow to five, and Cacau’s early strike remained the only goal of the game. We had not only bounced back from our defeat to Real Salt Lake, but we had ground out a result against a difficult opponent and in tricky circumstances - something we needed to be much better at doing if we were going to achieve my own personal goal of reaching the post-season play-offs for the MLS Cup.

 

And whereas it had taken us several weeks to record our second win of the previous season, we had managed it in the new campaign at just the third attempt, a clear improvement that no doubt registered with Adrian Haneuer and the rest of the ownership committee. Four days later, we made the relatively short trip to Portland - the fixture computer seems to love early season Cascadia Cup matches, and made it three from four with another 1-0 win, this time Valdez striking just after the hour mark in a scrappy encounter somewhat lacking the entertainment of our 4-0 romp in the first game. Nevertheless, we had nine points on the board and I was not about to complain.

 

The final game of March saw us head south to take on Chivas USA, who had also made a promising start to the new season after a fairly miserable campaign last time round. They struck early, grabbing a goal midway through the first half, but their lead lasted just three minutes before an instinctive finish from London Leonard brought us parity. Just 25 minutes into the match, however, it would be the high point of our afternoon.

 

Before half-time we were forced into a substitution as Cacau crumpled in a heap on the California turf. Physio reports suggested ankle problems and a minimum of four weeks on the sidelines for our Brazilian playmaker, placing a great deal of pressure on the shoulders of Reus as creator-in-chief. To make matters worse, his replacement Sibandze lasted just seven minutes before also having to leave the field, and while his injury was less serious, the rate at which our firepower was incapacitated was a cause for great concern.

 

With a much-changed front line and a team understandably rocked by the rapid rate of injury, the second half saw our hosts ram home their advantage. With 20 minutes to play, Hunter Robertson dithered as he went to make a tackle in the area, only half-managing to pull out in time, and succeeded only in bringing down his man. Up stepped Nicolas Juarez, and Tierney could do nothing about the spot-kick. Five minutes later the advantage was doubled, and there was no coming back from that. We travelled home on the wrong end of a 3-1 defeat, and a record from our opening five games that, while remaining positive, looked a lot more fragile than if we had come out on top.

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Much to my surprise, Haneuer called a meeting with me the day after the Chivas USA game. It was unusual enough that he wished to meet me alone rather than with the rest of the owners, but the fact that he had asked to do so despite telling me at our last meeting that our next session would be a midyear review was a little disconcerting to say the least.

“Hi Owain,” he began unsurprisingly, “thank you for coming. I want to start by saying you’ve got nothing to worry about from a personal point of view - we’re very happy with what you’re doing, and the improvement on this time last year has been noticed. Keep up the good work and we’ll be in the play-offs in no time.

 

“What I wanted to let you know is that Chris may not be around as much in the coming weeks and months, and that the reasons for that are strictly personal. I’ve been in football long enough to know that when management talks about personal reasons it’s often an outright lie, but Chris needs some space right now and as an organisation we need to give it to him.

 

“I also need you to know that, if he isn’t available, we are happy as owners of Seattle Sounders to let you take charge of any transactions and contracts relating to the playing staff and any coaching changes you may wish to make. I don’t know if you are intending to make any changes at this point in the calendar, but if you do then you have our full backing.

 

“Finally, there will be times when Chris is in work, and that’s both right and appropriate. He hasn’t done anything wrong, but he will need time. I don’t know what your relationship is like - I know he speaks very highly of you in professional terms - and I know I don’t need to say this, Owain, but unless he volunteers any information please don’t go digging around for gossip. Seattle Sounders is a community club, you yourself know the value of that, and as part of our family we owe it to Chris to give him the time he needs. Do you have any questions?”

 

I had millions.

 

“Not that I feel I can ask, Adrian, but thank you for letting me know. Do you know how much Chris is likely to be around?”

 

“I’m afraid not - he might come in five days one week and not at all for the next two - he’s got licence to do that from us. If you need help picking up his slack then tell me and we’ll arrange someone to assist you, but he isn’t being replaced.”

 

“I understand. Is there anything I can do?”

 

Chris may ask you himself, but I can’t answer that question for him. Just… look after him, you know?”

 

With that, I lost the reliable service of my valuable technical director for time unknown and for unspecified reasons. Adrian had looked saddened throughout the whole conversation, but I could not even begin to figure out what was going on with Chris. On a personal level, I was worried about him and for him. On a professional level, I felt a little out of my depth.

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And yet I had to do without Chris’ help as we welcomed Real Salt Lake to the Amazon and sought revenge for the 4-1 hammering they had given us in the second round of fixtures. I still did not fully understand a fixture system that saw us play two teams twice within the opening six games of the season, but we had little choice but to play along and see what came our way.

What came our way on this particular occasion was a highly professional performance far superior to the shift we had put in over in Utah. Twenty minutes in, Marco Reus drew no fewer than three defenders to him, beat them all with a clever turn, and then squared the ball perfectly for Leonard to tap in from all of six yards. For a free signing, our World Cup winner was proving quite the asset.

 

We held the lead into the second half, and despite Real’s best efforts they were simply not able to find a way through our highly organised defence. Instead we looked strong on the counter, and as the clock drifted over the hour mark we took full advantage. Substitute Homero Cano was tripped as he shaped to shoot in the area, and Ollie Cosgriff thumped home the resulting penalty to give us an unassailable 2-0 advantage.

 

It was a scoreline we would repeat just three days, hopping straight onto a plane bound for the East Coast and more specifically New York City, where the Red Bulls fell foul of our new-found swagger. This time it was Javier Cardenas who opened the scoring before being taken off injured in the first half, and after the break a moment of magic from striker Shannon saw him chip the backpedalling goalkeeper from the edge of the area to secure three points in some style.

 

Back home to complete a mad week of travel and football, we played host to Houston Dynamo - although injury would prevent an early season reunion with former DP Vladislav Klepikov. The troublemaking Russian could only watch from the stands, but his team-mates seemed to be doing just without him during an even first half, and seconds after the interval they took the lead through Italian striker Taormina to leave us a lot of work to do.

 

Last season, my Sounders would have crumbled, but this year we were a new team, and instead of letting our heads slump we picked them up and carried the game to Houston. Even with our own injury problems we had more than enough talent on the field to hurt our visitors, and with 10 minutes to go our pressure finally told, a clinical finish from London Leonard earning us a deserved share of the spoils.

 

That point was enough to take us to the top of the Western Conference, and while the uneven scheduling of MLS made it difficult to ascertain whether or not we would stay there for very long, what was obvious was that even if we did not stay top of the pile, we were playing well enough to be considered genuine contenders for a play-off berth. The season was still young, we would have many challenges ahead of us - not least the mysterious absence of my technical director and chief negotiator - but for now, it was a good time to be a Sounder.

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Three days after our draw with the Dynamo, Chris joined me and the team as we crossed the border for a Cascadia Cup clash with the Whitecaps in Vancouver. In theory one of our closest rivals, there was nowhere near the same level of animosity as between ourselves and Portland, and so we felt a great deal less pressure going into the game. With Chris on board, I had the chance to speak to him and find out if there was indeed anything I could do to help him out.

“It’s difficult Owain, it really is. I appreciate the thought, but really I need to figure this one out myself. Just treat me normally, that’s the best thing you can do right now.”

 

As you can see, I got nowhere, and Rachel’s words on hearing of his predicament hit home after our brief conversation. Don’t push it, she said told me - whatever it is, he probably needs normality.

 

On the field, normality was becoming increasingly linked to winning, and so it was with our trip to Vancouver. Chris chose to sit on the bench with me and Jide, and inside five minutes was on his feet as Jon Shannon shook off a challenge to drive a shot into the bottom corner of the net after being played through by Cano. Although failing to get on the scoresheet himself, last year’s Golden Boot winner was everywhere in the first half, and a worthy candidate for Man of the Match.

 

In the second period he again failed to find the target, but ensured we would leave Canada with all three points with a remarkable assist for London Leonard’s clinching goal. Finding himself in possession 20 yards from goal, and running towards the right side of the penalty area, his no-look backheel took half the Whitecaps defence out of the game in one touch, allowing Leonard to stroll into acres of space and finish the game. Another win, another clean sheet - things were looking good.

 

On the way home, I chatted with Chris about everyday stuff, exactly the sort of thing I figured he’d want to keep in focus if there was a black cloud looming over him some other way. He seemed happy to chat, but at the same even the joy of the win couldn’t hide his obvious melancholy, and there were no clues as to the cause.

 

Still, I must confess that by that point my mind too was beginning to wander. After four games in 10 days and thousands of miles of travelling, we had two full weeks before our next match. As such, the players were getting a few days off, and I was taking Rachel and the girls away for a few days. It was a long overdue holiday, and I could not wait.

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Hawaii may seem like something of a cliché - one of those places that can’t possibly as idyllic as it is in the movies, where the sand can’t possibly be as golden, the sun can’t possibly be as hot, and the atmosphere can’t possibly be as relaxed.

And you would be right, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make for the perfect holiday for team Williams. Rachel cut back on the number of books she brought with her - she was, after all, well ahead of where she needed to be with her assignments - while Bethan and Rebecca simply loved playing along the island’s coastlines. At the back end of April it was not yet peak tourist season, and so on several occasions we had entire beaches all to ourselves - it was a far cry from Pontin’s in Prestatyn.

 

Yet ultimately it would not last forever, and after a week we were back in Tukwila as Rachel continued her studies, the girls went back to school and I continued my assault on MLS with the Sounders. We still had one more match to play before seeing April off for the year, and in DC United faced a tough encounter on the other side of the country. The players were back in training with a spring in their step, but we would need more than spritely legs to get a win.

 

It would be a game defined by Danny Courtwright, the DCU striker who netted twice in three minutes to set the course of the match. His first, a 25th minute rocket from the edge of the penalty area, gave Tierney no chance and looked to set us on the road to a first defeat since our trip to Chivas USA at the end of March.

 

His second, just three minutes later, swung the momentum in our favour. Leonard’s shot took two deflections on its way out for a corner, and Reus’ dangerous delivery caused havoc in the DC defence. Courtwright simply couldn’t get out of the way quick enough, and the ball bounced joyfully off the toe-end of his left boot and past his stranded goalkeeper to get us back on level terms.

 

That goal was the invitation we needed to press on and go for the win, and so Jide and I urged our men to go for it in the second half. It was a dangerous game to play - Courtwright and his partner-in-crime Filip Malbasic looked like they could create a goal out of nowhere - but eventually we got our reward.

 

It came through Bheka Sibandze, who had only been on the field for 10 minutes when he made his lung-busting run. Brushing off one challenge, powering through a second and being felled by a third, our big Belgian dusted himself down and smashed home the penalty to give us a 2-1 lead with 15 minutes to go. Five minutes later, Salcedo’s diagonal ball found him coming in off the shoulder of the last defender, and his angled strike was too good for the man between the posts. With a two-goal lead we could afford to play out time, and at the final whistle we had yet another win to our name. The rumours were still quiet, but there was talk that this year’s Sounders were the real deal.

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Owain, can I have a minute?”

“Of course Chris, what can I do for you?”

 

“Well, how much do you know about Chad Henderson?

 

“We hold his rights, don’t we? Decent enough defender for a teenager, but not likely to make it as a Sounder, not with the depth we’ve got at the back. Why do you ask?”

 

Toronto are willing to throw two first-round picks at us for him, and I’m not quite sure why. We haven’t got the next Maldini waiting in the wings then?”

 

“Not a chance Chris. If our Canadian friends want him that badly, do the deal. Unless there’s anybody else in the market for him?”

 

“Not that I can tell - there’s rumours of interest from Vancouver if you think we should wait?”

 

“Not after yesterday, I’m very happy for the Whitecaps to miss out. Go for it Chris, let’s make it happen.”

 

The previous day, we had once again crossed the border to take on the Whitecaps, and what unfolded was one of the most frustrating and exhilarating games of football I had ever seen.

 

Things got off to a good enough start, with Shannon seizing on a loose ball in the area to open the scoring after just three minutes. That was all well and good, but Mike Richards decided he wasn’t going to let us lead for long, scoring seconds after the restart without a single Sounder touching the ball. Five minutes later, Richards turned provider for Daniel Padilla, and we were 2-1 down with the clock still in single figures.

 

Before the half it got worse, and that man Richards made himself public enemy number one in Seattle with his second of the game, this time robbing Gauthier of possession before firing past Tierney. However, it was our turn to hit back quickly, and a quick passing interchange on the edge of the Vancouver box made sure we went it at the break just a single goal down, Pedro Valdez providing the finish.

 

With an hour on the clock, we had momentum on our side as Marco Reus’ perfect corner was powered home at the far post by captain Andrew Perez. We’d clawed our way back from 3-1 down to square the game, and the home fans were beginning to worry. The tension was palpable, and the three points seemed to be there for the taking. Into the final 10 minutes, London Leonard netted with an instinctive turning shot, and we had hit three unanswered goals to take the lead.

 

But that man Richards still wasn’t done, and not content with two goals and an assist, he decided to score almost straight from kick-off for the second time in the match. Perez should have done better with the challenge, but the striker broke past him and hit a skidding shot which TIerney could only get fingertips to, and they weren’t enough. Moments later, the referee blew his whistle on a breathless game, with neither side particularly happy with a record-breaking 4-4 draw.

 

Accordingly, I had no qualms about trading a young prospect’s rights to their Canadian rivals. Vancouver were not my favourite team in the world at that moment.

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Despite our setback in Vancouver, we were still very well positioned in the Western Conference, and although there was still a lot of football to be played, we were looking very good for a play-off berth. So good, in fact, that with May rolling round and the European football season drawing to a close, I was headhunted for the first time since moving to the States.

The club in question was Scottish side Dundee United, who had firmly established themselves as the third-best club in the land behind the re-united Old Firm, finishing as best of the rest for four consecutive seasons. Their manager had been lured away south of the border, and their Italian chairman Ariedo Braida - the aging former director of powerhouses Milan and Barcelona - had earmarked me to take over.

 

I was flattered, but even with the pull of the Europa League it did not take me long to turn down the chance of an interview. United were, as my prospective employer explained, deep in the financial mire, £20,000 per week over their designated wage budget, and having to sell players to hold off the administrators. My job would not be to challenge Celtic and Rangers at the top of the pile, but simply ensure the club did not slide too far down the table while the ship was steadied. Dean thought it was worth a look, but I wasn’t so sure.

 

Combined with Rachel’s desire not to drag the family halfway around the world for a third time, and the fact that I was rather enjoying my time in Seattle, I thanked Mr Braida and politely declined his offer. I did so with no real regrets, and a knowledge that back in Europe, I was being noticed. It was a good feeling to have, even if I had no intention of acting on it.

 

Back to business, and my Sounders’ next two game would take place at home, sparing us long-distance travel for a couple of weeks at least. First up, and providing us with an early opportunity to seal the Heritage Cup for the season, were San Jose, and a brilliantly professional performance put the Earthquakes to the sword. A sumptuous chip over the defence from Reus put Shannon through to score as early as the second minute, and from then on it was a rout, our German star getting on the scoresheet himself and then watching from the bench as replacement Valdez wrapped things up with a third after the break. Pointless though it was, I claimed my first trophy as Seattle manager - a small feather in the cap, but a feather nonetheless.

 

Three days further on and another game to play, this time hosting Real Salt Lake in our third meeting of the season. Whereas we had got off to a flyer against San Jose, this time we would have to take a more patient approach before finding our rhythm, but when it did arrive it proved too much for Real to handle. We had controlled possession without creating too many chances up to a point, but when a miscued clearance found its way to the feet of Shannon eight minutes before the break, he was not about to pass up the opportunity.

 

The second half followed a similar pattern, but with us already a goal to the good, there was little need for urgency on our part. When Real finally realised they needed to come forward if they were to take anything from the game, we simply stepped in and put them away on the counter. Rodriguez started the move with by switching the play to fellow full-back Lawton, his ball into open space was good enough for Leonard to pick up, and his pass was weighted perfectly for Cacau to sweep in at the near post. Game over, 2-0, and more than enough for the win.

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Owain, can I speak to you for a moment? If you’ve got the time of course.”

“Of course Chris, I’ve always got time for you. What is it?”

 

“Well, the first thing is that Haneuer wants to speak to you, and I know what it’s about. I just wanted to say thank you for how you’ve put up with me these last couple of months - I know I’ve been all secretive and absent, but I didn’t really know what else to do.”

 

My mind started racing - was I being sacked? Was Chris on the way out? What had I done to deserve his thanks? I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

 

Chris, this is all very confusing. I know you don’t have to tell me, and you might not want to and that’s fine, but I have to ask, what is going on?”

 

My technical director sat silently for what felt like an eternity, first dropping his gaze from mine and then to the table between us, lost in his thoughts. I said nothing, and as I waited for his response I heard the first of his sobs.

 

“I.... I don’t know what to do Owain, I just don’t know. I… I’m sorry, it’s hard you know?”

 

Confronted with a colleague in tears, I did the only thing I could. I placed my hand on his shoulder, reassured him that he didn’t need to tell me if he couldn’t, but that I would do everything in my power to help if I could, and that any secret was safe with me. The sobbing slowed, but that clearly didn’t solve the problem.

 

“I don’t know what you do Owain. I mean… I don’t… I don’t know what anyone can do.”

 

I stayed quiet, allowing him to compose his thoughts.

 

“I might as well tell you hadn’t I, sat in a mess like this. What an idiot.”

 

“You do whatever you think best Chris, I’m not going to force anything.”

 

“No boss, you deserve to know. It’s Jackie, that’s why I’ve not been around, that’s why I’ve been in this pit for so long, that’s why I blubbing like a little baby at work. It’s Jackie.”

 

Again my mind started racing, and so I kept my mouth firmly shut. Chris and Jackie had seemed such a happy couple when they had hosted us near the start of my tenure, surely they weren’t on the verge of splitting up? The truth, as I was about to find out, was a long way off.

 

“It’s breast cancer Owain. They caught it too late. The doctors don’t think… they said… she’s not going to see Christmas, Owain.”

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I sat with Chris for the best part of an hour, weeping with him and simply allowing him to let go of all the things he had been holding back since Haneuer had told me something was wrong back in March. I had suspected several things, but never this - to be losing his wife so suddenly - and it had ruined the man.

Before he left the office I sent Rachel a message asking her to go and visit Jackie at her home, and to make a habit of doing so. She didn’t need to know all the details, and I knew it wouldn’t solve the problem, but the last thing I wanted was for the Hendersons to feel alone in this.

 

Chris didn’t know where to turn, what to say or even what to think. The doctors had dealt mainly in the facts, they’d given medical advice and pointed them in the direction of various charities for support, but the fact was Jackie was terminal, and Chris was starting his bereavement months in advance. Work - the one thing he found a sense of normality in and excelled at - was a difficult place for him to be, and he had already thought about packing it all in.

 

But Jackie had asked him not to - because she knew how much he enjoyed the day-to-day buzz of the football club, and because she didn’t want him to be worrying about financial security when she eventually passed away. Chris struggled with the pragmatism of his dying wife, but had acceded to her wishes on the condition it would be part-time only to begin with. That was what Adrian hadn’t been able to tell me back in March.

 

That evening, sat at home with Rachel, we talked through everything again. The girls were happy to play around us but could obviously sense - in the way that only pre-teens can - that something was the matter, and so quietly took themselves off to bed without having to be sent. For my wife, just a couple of weeks away from another set of exams, and who had been to see Jackie and heard the story first-hand, things were tough to process.

 

As if all this were not enough, there was also the small matter of Haneuer wanting to speak to me. He had graciously given me 24 hours to make a decision, but it was a big one. Another club had made an approach for my services, and this time it was not Dundee United. This time, it was a side from the English Premier League.

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That wasn’t strictly true, or at least it wouldn’t be for much longer - AFC Bournemouth had just finished the season in 19th place in the English top flight, and Jeff Mostyn wanted me to be the man to lead them back up out of the Championship. He had given my employers at Seattle the basic outline of the situation to pass on, Dean had given it a once-over, and it made for interesting reading.

First of all, the expectations were very clear - promotion or bust, and there was no contingency plan for a bust. With the money sloshing around in the Premier League, a club of Bournemouth’s ilk could simply not afford to be out of it for long. Accordingly, I would be handsomely rewarded for my efforts, more than doubling my weekly wage from around £15,000 to £35,000 - not to mention a sizeable promotion bonus.

 

Secondly, the club’s finances were a mixed bag. Mr Mostyn was prepared to furnish me with a £6m transfer kitty, but needed the weekly wage bill slashing to the tune of some £70,000. As with the role in Dundee, I would need to cut the squad back before adding my own players.

 

For Rachel, the fact it was a top English club made the decision that bit more complicated. Elsewhere, she was able to reject a move out of hand on the basis of unsettling the family, but a move back to the UK and to a prestigious team made that more difficult. She saw the benefits to the Williams household of me taking the move - but also the stress and strain it could put on the family.

 

We decided to sleep on it, and while I don’t remember a great deal of sleeping taking place, the conversation which filled the small hours allowed us to wake the next morning with something resembling clarity. Rachel wanted to finish her MBA, Bethan and Rebecca were settled, and I had unfinished business with the Sounders. I owed it to Adrian and the owners for taking a chance on me, and I owed it to Chris in his time of need. Bournemouth would have to look elsewhere.  

 

Four days after my rejection, they appointed 53-year-old Danish manager Morten Wieghorst as the man to lead them back into the top flight. I wished him well and wished him luck - with the financial restraints in place he would probably need it. However, I had a game to prepare for in Colorado, and with everything swimming around in my mind, I needed a little space to do it in.

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We travelled to Colorado with Chris accompanying us, and by the time we arrived to take on the Rapids, the players knew his situation. There was less of a personal impact - very few of my squad had ever met Jackie - but there was deep sympathy for our technical director, who had earned the goodwill of everybody within the club. We would beat Colorado, was the consensus in the dressing room, and we would beat them for Jackie and for Chris.

We faced a scare early on when one of Colorado’s defenders saw a headed goal from a corner ruled out for a push on Tierney, but we were not about to beaten - not with emotions running as high as they were. We started slowly but sure enough worked our way into the game, and eventually the opener came. Cacau provided the assist with a ball threaded between two defenders, and Valdez tucked it away in style. Our Mexican forward raced over to give Chris a bearhug on the sideline, and before long the whole team piled in - a perfect, spontaneous show of unity.

 

Just after the hour mark it was our turn to find the back of the net from a corner, and this time it did count, Hunter Robertson towering above his man to double our advantage and make sure we would returning to Seattle with all three points. The cake still required icing, however, and with a quarter of an hour to go we completed the decoration, Valdez drawing the goalkeeper and squaring the ball for Homero Cano to tap home.

 

It was a great moment for Cano, who had played well in the forward rotation since joining us from LA, but until this point was yet to find the back of the net. His performances had been good and his work ethic exemplary, but for a Golden Boot winner to go so long without a goal was a source of deep frustration to him, and so to see him rewarded at last was a source of both joy and relief. Colorado had no answer, and we had a 3-0 win.

 

Four days later, with Chris again on the sidelines, we began our US Open Cup campaign and the season-long tribute to Lamar Hunt. In a strange twist of fate, our third round clash would be at home to Reading United, who were overcame on the way to semi-finals in the previous campaign. In a clear sign that the owners were listening to my thoughts, we hosted it at the Amazon rather than in Tukwila.

 

We didn’t have the 60,000 fans we might expect for a derby against Portland, but there were still some 30,000 people packed in to watch us take on lower-league opposition. They didn’t have to wait too long for a goal either - two minutes into the match, Bheka Sibandze took advantage of a rare start to open the scoring, driving into the box and sending a powerful shot crashing beyond the goalkeeper.

 

Reading didn’t really get a look-in for the rest of the match, and to the frustrations of our supporters, we didn’t really feel the need to go through the gears. We had the lead, we had the better players, and the visitors couldn’t get going, so it made sense for us to manage the game rather than run the risk of unwanted injury.

 

That said, we did grab a second at the death, and it was that man Cano who made it two goals in as many games with a fine strike from 25 yards out. Then, in a moment which I don’t believe I will ever forget, instead of wheeling away in self-glorifying celebration, he lifted his shirt over his head to reveal a white t-shirt emblazoned with the simple words ‘We Love You Jackie.’

 

Chris was reduced to tears next to me on the bench, and for me it was a moment which drove home just how much of a community Seattle Sounders can be. Here was Cano, a man who had been with the club for less than six months and had not had the easiest of rides, dedicating his goal to a woman he had never met, all because a member of staff he had few dealings with was hurting. I don’t know if Chris ever mentioned the incident to Homero, but I know how touched he was.

 

There would be more good news for Cano, and indeed a whole host of Sounders as he made his international debut for the USA along with Paul Tierney and Jon Shannon in a friendly against Sweden a couple of days later. With Andrew Perez at the heart of his country’s defence we had four men in the line-up, and I made a point of calling Jon to congratulate him after his late goal earned Ben Olsen’s men a 2-1 win. We would, however, miss all four men and unused substitute Salcedo for our trip to LA the next day.

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However, while we would be without five first-team players, the Galaxy were in a bit of a pickle themselves. For a team which had comfortably won the Western Conference last season, they were in dire straits in the current campaign, sitting second from bottom and struggling to make any headway towards the play-off places. To make matters worse, their Open Cup adventure was over before it started in the most humiliating of fashions - a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of USL side Rochester Rhinos.

So we were facing a team very much licking their wounds in our first game of June, giving us cause for both hope and caution. Hope, that even with five senior players missing we stood a chance against a side in terrible form, and caution in that we needed to be wary of a wounded animal.

The opening exchanges would therefore be key to seeing which way the pendulum would swing, and fortunately it swung very much in our favour. Ten minutes into the match Sibandze forced a superb save out of the home goalkeeper, but there was nothing the stopper could do with our next shot on target. Camacho’s ball was perfect for Cacau, and his through-ball found Cardenas in the perfect position to make the most of a rare start and score against the club who had traded him away at the start of last season. LA would not create a single chance in the first period, and we went in 1-0 to the good at the break.

In the second half we settled down into a rhythm not dissimilar to the one we adopted against Reading United, and did not feel the need to stretch ourselves against a clearly toothless Galaxy side. There was little of note for much of the second period, but even then we made a basic win look very comfortable. A corner on the right was fizzed in by Reus, and 36-year-old veteran Omar Gonzalez only managed to head the ball past his own goalkeeper to double our lead. Then, with stoppage time winding down, our German star bent in a free-kick from the edge of the box to complete a routine win, and push our hosts a little further into the mire.

We remained without our five internationals for the visit of reigning champions Philadelphia, and the Union would no doubt provide us with a much stronger test than LA had managed. In an amusing piece of news before the match, Chris informed me that New England Revolution had placed our old midfield destroyer Kyle Miller on the waivers list - just a few months and three appearances after giving us $400k and a first-round SuperDraft pick for his contract. Some sound business in Boston.

Chris was also on good form trading away the players we held rights to, rinsing Portland in his latest deal. They wanted Austin Merritt, a promising-but-not-promising-enough young striker who, at almost 22 years old, was rapidly running out of time to make an impact. They were offering a first round pick in 2027, and to see whether they’d play ball Chris threw in two far less attractive ‘prospects’ and demanded another first choice in 2026. For some reason, the Timbers took the bait, and I was left wondering whether I had the only sane front office in the States.

Back on the field, our game against Philadelphia was fairly dismal. They were missing a handful of their top internationals to add to our five doing their duty for the US, and while both teams had the depth to fill the gaps, the result was not an enjoyable one. Between us we registered just four shots on target in the first 85 minutes of the game at two apiece, and it looked as if a goal was simply beyond comprehension.

Marco Reus had other ideas however, and at a stage in the game when he would normally have been withdrawn to the bench, he produced a little moment of magic to earn us another win. He took a pass 20 yards out, spun to beat one man, dropped a shoulder to deceive another, and then curled a low shot beyond the reach of the goalkeeper into the far corner of the net. The Amazon wasn’t expecting it, but certainly enjoyed it, and there was no time for the Union to fight back.

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A day after our win over the champions, we were reunited with our five internationals. The US had played another home friendly, this time testing themselves against the might of Croatia, and had come away with a creditable 2-2 draw. Again it was the Sounders in the squad that had got the goals, with Salcedo and Cano netting equalisers in each half to prevent the Europeans running away with things.

They had just three days to rest before our next trip, this time in the US Open Cup where the draw had sent us on the road to Kansas City and a fourth round clash with Sporting. They were a side hovering around the wildcard spots in the Eastern Conference, and so it was difficult to tell whether they planned to unleash their first team against us or not - MLS placing obviously a higher priority for some teams.

In the end we needn’t have worried. I brought back a couple of those who had been away and played a relatively strong but nevertheless rotated line-up, while Sporting’s team selection all but threw the tie. Shannon marked his return from international duty with the opener half an hour in, and in the second half we made sure of our place in the last eight with goals from Cacau and Cardenas. Waiting for us there, much to Jide’s delight, would be Minnesota United.

We had a couple of league games before continuing our cup campaigns, but before that there was more good news to announce to the press. Two days after our win in Kansas City, Chris and I proudly announced to the assembled media at the Starfire Complex that Hunter Robertson, Paul Salcedo and Marco Reus had all signed extensions to their contracts - due to expire in December - and would remain part of the Sounders family.

Part of my decision to open negotiations with them at this stage was simple - it would prevent teams from outside MLS approaching them under the Bosman ruling and arranging pre-contracts - but for Reus in particular, it was recognition of his fine work in the season so far. Robertson and Salcedo extended for two more years after proving their worth in a four-man back line and after injury respectively, but for Reus, now 35 years old, another year with the option for a second told him that despite his age, he was still considered an important part of our line-up.

Four days later, I wondered whether or not we had made a mistake. The Rapids made the trip over from Colorado apparently with the sole intention of kicking us off the park, and not only managed to get away with a 0-0 draw, but also put two of our best players out of action for several weeks. Shannon was taken out on the touchline with a hip-check that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the NHL, fracturing his hip and requiring two months of treatment. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a late challenge on Reus left our German star needing a stretcher, and the news from the physio room was not good - his knee was not in a good way, and it would be at least three months before he played again.

We left the field feeling like a beaten team even though we had taken a point, and after the 17th of our 34 games of the MLS season were clear at the top of the Western Conference from Chivas USA, the surprise package of the season sitting seven points back with two games in hand. Colorado, for all their faults, were the first of the two sides fighting for the wildcard places, and were a full 12 points behind us.

More telling perhaps was the Supporters’ Shield standings, combining the teams from both conferences. We had played one game more, but of all the 19 teams in MLS, only the Chicago Fire could boast a record as strong as ours. It would be tough to maintain that lead without two of our key men, but we had put ourselves in the best possible position at the halfway stage. All we had to do was stay there.

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Owain my love, I know you’ve got to go to Boston tomorrow, but do you mind if we chat for a bit?”

I had no problems spending time away from football with my wife, and Rachel had my full attention. Besides, we were as ready for our trip to New England as we were ever going to be.

“Of course darling, what’s on your mind?”

I’ve been thinking about that offer you got from Bournemouth. I mean, I’ve been thinking about lots of things trying to keep my mind off these exam results, but Bournemouth in particular.”

This was something of a surprise. Rachel had taken her second batch of exams and was awaiting the results, along with those of her latest assignments, from the faculty at the University of Washington. These were the second of three sets in the three-semester programme, and while she was now in the lengthy summer break, the finish line was well and truly in sight. After getting a ‘D’ in her first set however, she was nervous.

“What about Bournemouth exactly?”

“Well, less Bournemouth and more the Premier League, you know? England and moving back. What do you think about it?”

“Well, I think it’d take a bigger club to convince me at the moment. Things are going well here, you’ve still got another semester of your course, we’re not wanting for money - it doesn’t seem to make sense to move right now.”

“But what about about after that. Let’s say you win the league this season - you’re bound to be in demand. Would you consider it then?”

“It really would depend on who it was darling. I’d have to look at a Liverpool or Arsenal, but if someone at the wrong end of the table - or a badly-run team like Newcastle - approached me, I’m not sure I’d want to risk it. It’s very comfortable at Seattle.”

“OK, two years from now. Your Sounders have won this version of the Champions League. Then what?”

I didn’t quite know what Rachel was pushing for, but I answered honestly - I saw no reason to hide anything.

“In that case, we get together and weigh everything up. If I win the NACL, getting a job in England - or maybe somewhere else in Europe - shouldn’t be hard. It’ll depend on what we - and I include Bethan and Rebecca in that because they’ll be old enough to think about it - want to do. It isn’t all about me, I know that.”

“I’m not accusing you darling, I just want to know. I’ve got lots of thinking time, you know?”

I leaned across the sofa and kissed her on the forehead.

“I do know darling, and you can talk to me at any time. I might be the manager of this football team, but I’m not married to it. Only you’re that lucky.”

The smile told me I was on safe ground. I just wished I knew what was going on in her mind

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Chris chose not to join us for our trip to New England, and give the Rev’s dire form, I had absolutely no qualms about him staying at home with Jackie. His wife was deteriorating - Rachel was watching it first-hand - and it was all my technical director could do to hold it together when he was around. To make him trek from one side of the continent to the other and back seemed unfair.

By the time the full-time whistle blew, I felt the same way about my players’ treatment of their manager. For the first time since we were beaten by Chivas USA at the end of March, my men turned in a truly insipid performance and received precisely nothing for their ‘efforts.’ The game was settled by a single goal, scored by Luis Nieves in the first half, and we created absolutely nothing. Some of it was down to the absence of Shannon and Reus, but that was now a fact of our season, and we couldn’t let it affect us for three whole months. I read the riot act after the game.

“Now I know we haven’t lost in a long time, and maybe some of you have forgotten quite what that feels like. Well, it hurts, doesn’t it? It hurts to come off the field at the end of 90 hard minutes, with barely a drop of sweat left in you because of how much you’ve left out there.

“So what’s your excuse? Because when I look around this room, I see a group of players with plenty left in the tank, who could run laps around that pitch if they needed to, and whose manager is on the verge of making them do precisely that!”

The silence in the room was exactly the appropriate response as some of the younger players started to drop their gaze.

“Look at me when I’m talking! New England are not a good football team, but they made you look like amateurs today. A goal off a set-piece and then a stroll through 90 minutes, do you think that’s good enough? Don’t answer me - you don’t have to.

“This team is a play-off team, in fact this season it is a team fighting for the championship. Teams fighting for championships do not dial in a performance when a couple of players get injured, they do not dial in a performance because there’s a cup game coming up, and they certainly do not dial in a performance because they can’t be bothered to trying against New ****ing England!

The F-bomb had the desired effect. It was the first time any of my players had heard me swear - I simply chose not to - but the way they sat bolt upright told me I had their attention.

“I don’t mind losing if the other team is better than us, if we get outplayed in spite of our efforts. But that is not what happened today. If Nieves had turned into Lionel Messi, I wouldn’t be tearing into you lot right now, but he didn’t. Now, some of you will play in Minnesota - some of you won’t. If I don’t see a marked improvement in the cup, some of you will be looking for another club.

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Just 25 minutes into Jide’s return to Minnesota, I could not believe what I was seeing. To my delight, my men had responded well to my post-match challenge in Boston, but the officials in our quarter-final were determined not to let us any further. First Sibandze had a perfectly good goal chalked off for offside when he was at least a yard on, and then one of the clearest penalties I had seen was not given to Cacau.

To make matters worse, the linesman then allowed Kyle Phillips to run through despite having a clear headstart on our backline, and the crowd at the National Sports Center went ballistic as the young forward fired past Tierney. The Loons, as they are known to their friends, had the lead, and they carried it to the break. I couldn’t get mad with my team - by rights we should have been leading 2-0 - but we were on the cusp of an embarrassing exit and a second defeat in four days.

Instead, I simply told them to deny the officials any opportunity to have an impact on the game, and they paid attention. Six minutes after the restart Sibandze gave his defender a two-yard headstart but still managed to muscle his way onto Camacho’s ball down the right side, and he cut inside to equalise with a thunderous shot. Three minutes later, a cross from the left was glanced in at the near post with the deftest of touches from Valdez, and we had turned it around.

We were not finished, and the third goal brought the most satisfaction. Not because it was a goal of remarkable skill, but because we forced the cheating officials into giving us a penalty. Valdez was felled after cleverly rolling his man in the box, and Sibandze powered the shot into the roof of the net to book us a place in the semi-finals against FC Dallas. I could only hope the referee was a little more even-handed in that one. Jide had a good time at least - I gave him permission to rejoin us back in Seattle a day late, and from his tales the following morning he had rather enjoyed ‘catching up’ - which seemed awfully similar to drinking - with his old friends at United.

We had one more match to play before my mid-season review with the owners, and so of course we went ahead and lost two league games in a row for the first time all season. Montreal were in a good run of form at home, but even then we matched to the break thanks to a header from Valdez. However, in the second half they did have a man trying to perfect his Messi impression, and Sergio Pozzali added two more to his first-half effort to claim the match ball and earn the Impact a 3-1 win which kept them into the play-off hunt in the East. More importantly, I had some employers to meet

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Loving the story Dave. As an Aussie I am disappointed it didnt work out in the A League but I can verify that Geelong Cats are the best, no matter what 10-3 likes to portray... :D

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9 hours ago, MP27 said:

Loving the story Dave. As an Aussie I am disappointed it didnt work out in the A League but I can verify that Geelong Cats are the best, no matter what 10-3 likes to portray... :D

Thank you! The A-League was a bit of a pain with the various restrictions (and inability to sign other league players, what's that about?!), but it was fun for a coup,e of years. As for the AFL, I'm not getting involved in that one again...
--

Owain my friend, come on in. Thank you for coming. Erik sends his apologies, but he’s in Canada on business.”

Adrian was flanked by a usual suspect in Paul Allen, while Erik Nordstrom was absent and replaced by Chris Henderson. No doubt he had been speaking to the owners about our own professional relationship, and while on a structural basis we were equals, there was no doubt he was closer to the club’s owners than I was.

“Just before we start, I want to put my personal thanks on the record for what you’ve done recently. It looks like a long fight with Chivas for the conference title, but you’ve done very well to have this team where it is and you deserve credit for that.

“I’d also like to thank for for the way you’ve dealt with enquiries about your own future. The pull of England must be strong, and I’m very grateful that you chose to turn down Bournemouth and stick with us in Seattle.

“I don’t anticipate this taking very long Owain, but if I could ask you a question or two - how much can we achieve from here?”

“Well Adrian, as you say we’re almost certain to be in a play-off spot unless the wheels come off in spectacular fashion, which I don’t envisage happening. We’re at the right end of the table, and the two teams challenging us at Chivas, as you mentioned, and Chicago in the Supporters’ Shield. Given that there is still some way to go and we are now missing two of our key players in Jon Shannon and Marco Reus, I don’t know whether we will be able to keep up the pace - I expect more points dropped - but we can put ourselves in a strong position for the post-season.”

Paul Allen stepped in next.

“Do you envisage making any significant changes to the squad ahead of the play-offs Owain?”

“Unless something unmissable comes up, no. Chris has done a superb job on the trading front this season, and we have no shortage of draft picks in the bank for the coming years. However, if a Cano or Salcedo pops up on waivers, we’d be stupid not to take them.”

“And you don’t anticipate losing anybody to other clubs?”

“Not at the moment, no. There is some interest in both Javier Cardenas and Jon Shannon, but the latter is injured and so would fail any medical examination, while the former has no interest in playing his football in the Middle East. Financially, thanks to your efforts, we are not in a position where we need to sell players against our will, and I see no reason to upset a settled squad.”

Adrian took charge for a second time, pointing out the elephant in the room.

“Thank you Owain, that’s all the reviewing we need to do at this point - we’ll meet like this at the end of the play-offs, whenever that may be. Before you go, however, I believe Chris has got something to say?”

“Yes, thank you Adrian. Owain, when Adrian told you something was the matter with me, I don’t know what you must have thought - we’d had you and Rachel round when you first arrived, but I don’t feel like we knew each other particularly well.

“But since I told you about Jackie, you’ve been a real friend to me. You wept with me, you’ve given me space, you’ve rallied the team round me, and I’m really grateful for what you and Rachel have done for us. So yeah, thank you.”

Chris, you don’t need to thank me, it’s the least we could have done. You’ve helped me so much since I arrived here, and you’re a friend.”

Chris was clearly starting to struggle, and almost ignored my last comment. Adrian gave me a calm, pastoral smile that told me not to protest what was coming next, and at once I understood.

“I’ve been chatting with Adrian, and although it’s not what Jackie wants, I’ve decided to step down at the end of the season. It isn’t fair on the team for me to be away half the time, and it isn’t doing my own state any favours.

“I don’t know how much time I’ll have left with Jackie at that point… it might… she… it might be too late. But even then, I’ll… I’ll need time. Sorry…”

“No Chris, no need to apologise,” said Adrian, “thank you for explaining to Owain so clearly. Owain - you don’t need to worry about Chris. He’ll be paid bereavement money for up to a year, and while we can’t promise him his old role back, we’ve told him he’ll always be a Sounder if he wants to be - whatever that might look like. We’ll talk again at the end of the year about getting a new technical director in for next year, but you need to be aware that that’ll be going on.”

“Thank you Owain, and thank you too Chris. You’re always welcome in my office and my home.”

Before the tears began to flow, Adrian drew the meeting to a close. For such a positive review, it had not been an easy session.

Edited by EvilDave

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On ‎12‎/‎20‎/‎2016 at 17:18, MP27 said:

Loving the story Dave. As an Aussie I am disappointed it didnt work out in the A League but I can verify that Geelong Cats are the best, no matter what 10-3 likes to portray... :D

Hey! :p

We're a happy team at Hawthorn
We're the Mighty Fighting Hawks...

Meanwhile, I have a bone to pick with Mr. Evil about this whole Seattle thing. After all, I have to pretend I care about MLS now that my state is going to have a team in it ... well done, Owain, but as a supporter of the much smaller MUFC (Minnesota United Football Club), I must respectfully protest!

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6 hours ago, tenthreeleader said:

Meanwhile, I have a bone to pick with Mr. Evil about this whole Seattle thing. After all, I have to pretend I care about MLS now that my state is going to have a team in it ... well done, Owain, but as a supporter of the much smaller MUFC (Minnesota United Football Club), I must respectfully protest!

Ah, the ever-changing MLS landscape - you'll have a 50-team league before long! Owain seems to be enjoying Seattle life now his team isn't awful, but personally I'd like to see Minnesota do well. For one they have a proper name, and second I have a bizarre soft spot for the Twin Cities thanks to the music of The Hold Steady. Also as a nickname, the Loons is just great...
--

With news of Chris’ not-quite-imminent departure fresh in my ears, and Rachel just two weeks away from receiving the results from her second batch of Global MBA assignments, there was plenty of my mind as we hosted Toronto FC at the Amazon to kick off the MLS calendar in July. In many ways, the school summer holidays made it that bit easier for my wife - with Bethan and Rebecca to entertain, she would at least be able to focus on something other than the incoming results.

TFC were not a side renowned for their beautiful football, and not for the first time in our mini-slump, we allowed an opponent to impose their pace of play on the game. The result was a stodgy affair which did little to excite the 47,000 or so loyal supporters who had turned out for the ‘spectacle.’ Just seconds before the half-time whistle blew, Sibandze saw a goalbound header cleared off the line by the desperate boot of a Canadian defender, but otherwise there was little to report.

The second half headed in much the same direction, and I would not have blamed anyone for deciding to cut their losses and leave early - the game really was that bad. We didn’t want to drop any more points in our bid for conference glory and so had to up the pace, but Toronto were showing all the adventurous spirit of an ageing tortoise, retreating into their shell and showing no signs of coming out to play.

Still, we huffed and puffed, and eventually the goal came in the scrappiest of circumstances. A Cacau corner from the right was headed goalwards by Perez, only for the goalkeeper to instinctively block it with a strong wrist. The rebound fell kindly for Cosgriff who swung wildly at it, crashing a shot off the knee of his marker. The ball ballooned back out to the taker, whose second ball in was hacked at by another TFC man but miscued straight into the path of Homero Cano, who finally put an end to the madness with a cool low finish from nine yards out. The atmosphere in the Amazon spoke more of relief than celebration, and unsurprisingly Toronto offered little in the remaining 15 minutes. Three points, somehow.

We managed to follow up the win with another 1-0 success, this time on the road at soon-to-be semi-final opponents FC Dallas. This time the goal came much more cleanly, Valdez finishing off a rapid counter-attack just before the hour, but whereas Toronto had frustrated us, Dallas must have been left wondering how they failed to score.

First there was our charmed woodwork, which Paul Tierney would have been forgiven for kissing after the match. Twice in the first half and once in the second we were saved by post, crossbar or a combination of the two, and the howls of anguish from the Dallas faithful testified to their bad luck. On two of the occasions, Tierney was stranded and nowhere near the shot - further evidence of our good fortune.

Add in the fact that Valdez looked to be marginally offside when Salcedo played the ball through to him, and the home team were right to feel somewhat aggrieved at earning nothing from the game. Still, whilst I offered my sympathies to my opposite number Brad Guzan, I was not about to offer him any of the points our fortuitous win earned us. If we harboured hopes of winning the MLS Cup, we would need more than our fair share of luck.

Edited by EvilDave

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Our luck, however, would quickly run out as Sporting Kansas City came to town. With the clock showing just 22 minutes we were 2-0 down as an old gremlin of ours reared its ugly head again - corner kicks.

Ricardo Dafoncchio was the man who decided to make the game a nightmare for the watching fans, as first he rose completely unchallenged to head in a corner which by rights should have been a goal kick - the referee’s assistant siding with the visiting players rather than Tierney’s correct appeal.

Then, 10 minutes later he decided he fancied a go at taking the corner himself, and somehow a combination of his left-footed inswinger, a poor piece of positioning from our goalkeeper, and the wind blowing around the Amazon Arena saw his set-piece find the back of the net without a touch from another player. It was a frankly ridiculous goal to concede, made our job incredibly difficult, and earned my men an extra training session on corner kicks the following day.

For all Kansas City’s early prowess from the dead ball, they offered very little for the rest of the game, but the deed was already done. We heaped pressure on their defensive line for the rest of the 90 minutes, but only once did it crack and allow us through, and by the time Cano slid one home in the 87th minute, we were already one of time. We had been robbed - of that there was no doubt - but on this occasion the visitors had at least earned their right to the points. Through gritted teeth, they had to be congratulated.

A week later, and with Chris again choosing to stay at home with Jackie, we headed to San Jose for a dead rubber in the Heritage Cup standings but an important game for our MLS hopes. The Earthquakes were again fighting for a play-off berth, and we needed a win if we were to keep pushing at the very top of the standings.

Thankfully, San Jose were not in particularly good form, and while we struggled to get going, we were far more efficient at retaining and using our possession that the hosts. A fairly uneventful first half ended goalless, but midway through the second a quick acceleration of the play on the edge of the Earthquakes’ area resulted in the ball finding its way to Sibandze unmarked inside the box, and the big Belgian made no mistake with a low finish. One goal was enough, we enjoyed the presentation of the Heritage Cup, and then it was back on the road to Seattle.

All the while, I was half-expecting a text from Rachel. She had been told to expect her MBA assessment results the day before, yet a glitch in the University of Washington’s system meant there was no word on when exactly she would receive the results. As it happened, the day after our win over San Jose, the email came through. There was yet more disappointment.

This time, however, it was somewhat ironic. In her first set of marks there had been a rogue ‘D’ grade that had thrown her off and had her doubting the very reasons she was going to classes. This time round, Rachel had not only banished any thoughts of a ‘D’ grade, but was comfortably ahead of the curve. The disappointment came in that of her four marks - two essays and two exams - there was a humble ‘B’ to accompany three top marks

Edited by EvilDave

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Rachel’s good news made for good start to August, but by the end of it I was wishing it away. As the MLS calendar approached the business end, my men were starting to flag, and it was showing in their performances. First up was the visit of the Columbus Crew to the Amazon, where a first-half Pablo Meyer goal earned three points for the visitors, and we followed that up with another abject home display against the Colorado Rapids. This time, at least, nobody left the field on a stretcher.

Our final league game of the month was a big one in the grand scheme of things, as we travelled to Chicago and the in-form Fire. Our hosts led the Eastern Conference by some distance and, along with ourselves and Chivas USA, were prime contenders to finish top of the Supporters’ Shield rankings and claim one of the Champions League berths available. In theory, it was a game between the top two sides in the country.

What it turned into however, was a picture of our problems. Twice in the first half moments of inattentiveness allowed Chicago to score, and twice Pedro Valdez was denied what appeared to be legitimate equalisers by the linesman’s flag. On the replays, the official was shown to be right half of the time, but that was scant consolation to a team fighting for the title.

Then in the second half our misery was compounded when Claudio Mendoza got a run on his man to turn home a corner kick, and the final whistle signalled a decisive and humiliating 3-0 defeat. Our form, so strong from April through to June, could now only be described as poor with one win in five MLS outings, and with their games in hand we had opened the door for Chivas to come through and claim top spot in the West. They too were stuttering, but we were not helping ourselves.

The bright light, however, came between our home ties against Columbus and Colorado, as we travelled down to Dallas for our Open Cup semi-final. This was the stage we had crashed out at last year, when our season had ended and the wind-down to the end of the campaign began. This time, we were determined not to make the same mistake again.

Accordingly, I opted for a full-strength line-up with the sole exception of Brent Sassano between the sticks - he had played in every other round of the cup and deserved a chance - and was rewarded with possibly the finest half hour of football we had played all season. It might the two limp defeats which followed utterly inexplicable, but at the time it was a joy to watch.

It began with Homero Cano’s deft flicked finish after just 13 minutes, a goal which silenced the capacity crowd packed into Toyota Stadium. Five minutes later we led 2-0, a superb dummy from London Leonard buying him the time and space needed to pick his spot and side-foot home from just left of the penalty spot. We were flying, and Dallas were stunned.

They would not recover either, and on the half hour mark Pedro Valdez set off on a run that started 35 yards from goal and ended with him lifting the ball over the goalkeeper and racing away to celebrate in front of the travelling fans, netting the goal worthy of gracing any match. At 3-0, there was no way back for the devastated home team, and at the final whistle our place in the cup final was confirmed. There we would meet Real Salt Lake in October, and I only hoped that by then we would have made days like this the rule rather than the exception.
--

Merry Christmas one and all, and thanks for reading Owain's adventures both Down Under and Stateside. I'll be taking a break for the next couple of weeks, so enjoy the holidays and see you all in 2017!

Edited by EvilDave

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Well, we're back - Happy New Year to you all, and let's go on with the show..
--

September opened at home to Vancouver, who had had the nerve to tie us up at 4-4 the last time we had met. This would be the last of the largely pointless Cascadia Cup games for the season, but with an extra trophy in the bag - although not yet presented - it kept the fans happy even if Haneuer and co. didn’t really give it the time of day.

Last time out, Mike Richards had been a constant thorn in our side, winding up with a hat-trick and denying us the three points. This time, the Whitecaps frontman would have to settle with two, netting a brace in the 15 minutes either side of half-time to give our Canadian visitors a 2-1 lead after an hour.

However, whereas in our last encounter we developed a habit of scoring only to concede moments later, this time we were much much focused. With 20 minutes to go I gambled, throwing on Bheka Sibandze in a bid to make things happen up front, and that is exactly what we saw - a stride into the area, a challenge brushed off, and a low drive to level the scores. Then, instead of panicking and shipping a third, we found one ourselves.

His form may not have been the outstanding difference-maker it was the previous season, when he was a bright spark in a mediocre outfit, but Cacau’s consistency has been one of the reasons behind our success. This time our Brazilian maestro decided it was high time he pulled the strings once more, and with four minutes remaining bent a delicious curling strike high into the top corner from 20 yards out. It deserved to win any game, and meant Vancouver travelled home pointless.

We would have more good news come in, as scorelines from around the grounds informed us of defeat for both Chicago and Chivas USA. The latter’s loss meant Real Salt Lake were now our closest challengers in the Western Conference, two points behind with an extra game on the board. We would still need to keep winning if we wanted to claim conference honours and stand a chance in the Supporters’ Shield, but it boded well.

What also looked good was a red card after just two minutes of our next MLS fixture against San Jose. Earthquakes defender Marco Mazzini mistimed his tackle on Sibandze as our big Belgian entered the area, and the referee was left with no choice but to give both the red card and penalty. Bheka smashed it home, and we didn’t look back.

It finished 5-0, effectively a training ground procession against a short-handed San Jose side struggling for form. Sibandze netted a second penalty midway through the first half, Valdez grabbed two of his own, and we wrapped things up with a headed goal from substitute Homero Cano five minutes from time. The heavy defeat spelled the end for Earthquakes boss Eric Wynalda, who got the boot the following morning. I felt for the guy - I’m sure he hadn’t told Mazzini to commit a professional foul after 90 seconds - but with the play-offs gone, so was he.

On the contrary, our place in the MLS Cup shootout was now guaranteed, and our aim between now and the end of the regular season was simple - keep winning, win the Western Conference, and beat Chicago to the Shield. Easier said than done, but we needed to aim high.

Edited by EvilDave

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A week later, a couple of days before our game with the Galaxy - our third home match in a row - Rachel visited Jackie at her home. It wasn’t good. Whereas she had been managing the pain up until this point, it was reaching the stage where even the most basic of tasks became uncomfortable. Rachel had, of course, offered to be around as much as was needed, but with her MBA approaching the crucial final months, her help was going to be limited. Chris was obviously going to be at home more, but he was not coping particularly well either.

The squad was being kept up-to-date with her progress, and so there was both a considerable distraction and a steely resolve to go out and beat LA for Jackie’s sake. That, however, was easier said than done with a close friend suffering from cancer, and so when Jorge Wondolowski fired the visiting Galaxy in front midway through the first half, it caused a dark and sombre mood to hang over the dressing room at the interval.

It was a mood which was lightened by Chris’ sudden arrival, and without needing to be asked I handed the team-talk over to him. It was simple, passionate, bordering on tears at times, but it did the job. This team was his family, Jackie’s family, he told them, and he wouldn’t have them use her as an excuse for such a limp display.

Well, Chris can give my team-talks any time. Fifteen minutes after the break Jon Shannon hit an absolute rocket of a shot that bulged the net from 30 yards out, and five minutes leader Cano found the target against his old club to complete the turnaround. The Galaxy were suitably stunned, and we weren’t done either - with time running down, their top scorer Armando Moreno headed a corner past his own goalkeeper to make it 3-1 and give the Amazon Arena one more goal to cheer.

It put us top of the Supporters’ Shield standings by a point, but that particular status quo would not last for very long. A week later, and a day after Pedro Valdez became a citizen of the United States, we headed south to Chivas USA and returned on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline, the tightest of games decided by a solitary goal from Mark Burns half an hour in. Chicago won in their game, leapfrogging over us to top the standings once again, and this was going down to the wire.

Or at least, I hoped it would. We stayed down south to take on the Galaxy in a classic MLS double-header, and a certain Mr Moreno wanted revenge. Upset at the own goal humiliation we had inflicted on him, the league’s leading goalscorer hit a first-half brace and set up Mark Miller for a third before the interval, leaving us reeling and not knowing how to respond. Ollie Cosgriff at least got us on the scoreboard, but the fourth goal came at the death and we were a badly beaten team. Chris’ moment of inspiration of a couple of weeks ago seemed dim and distant, and I had to pick my men up off the floor.

The defeats could not have come at a worse time for my Sounders. Not only had Salt Lake hit a bit of form to bring our domination of the Western Conference into question, Chicago just kept on winning to boost their Shield chances. And as if all that wasn’t enough, we had the small matter of a cup final in four days’ time.

Edited by EvilDave

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Seattle Sounders had not won the US Open Cup since 2014, the club’s fourth title after three in a row from 2009-11. After the club’s formation, they developed an instant love affair with the knockout competition, but Sigi Schmid was unable to reconjure the magic that led to those initial three titles.

In the American sporting system, neutral venues are very rarely used, and so we would be given home field advantage for the final against Real Salt Lake. The Amazon Arena, which greeted us with a huge roar as we stepped out onto the field, was packed to capacity - further proof, if it was needed, that the Starfire Complex was simply inadequate for the purpose. Our visitors from Utah were given a respectful if not exactly welcoming reception, and even I, a proud Welshman, found my hair standing on end as the national anthem blared out around the ground.

We had more than 60,000 fans cheering us on, and there was no doubt we were the favourites. Real were on a good run of form - a run which had made them our closest contenders in the Western Conference - but we were at home, in decent nick ourselves, and with a far richer history in the competition than our opponents. Haneuer, Allen and Nordstrom had not given me any expectations in this competition, but having made it this far were surely expecting me to add it to our trophy cabinet.

Fifteen minutes into the match, we created the first clear chance. Marco Reus had been given the start despite the recent good form of Sibandze and Cacau in the supporting roles, and it was his pass which released Valdez in behind. Our hitman took the pass in his stride, but the touch proved a little heavy, and his second was a shot which only rippled the side netting. Ten minutes later, Sassano made a fingertip save to keep us level, and we almost found ourselves rueing the missed opportunity.

The game was tight, nervous and understandably closed - neither team wishing to make the error which would cost them the cup. Valdez began to cut a fairly isolated figure up front as the battle continued in midfield, while Ollie Cosgriff in particular was right in the thick of things on the front line. Then, just four minutes before the interval, a goal came.

It was Cosgriff who started things by intercepting a pass at full stretch inside our own half, and immediately feeding defensive midfield partner Salcedo. From there it was sent wide to Rodriguez, who in the blink of an eye made 15 yards down the left flank.

A quick one-two with Cacau earned him yet more ground in the Salt Lake half, and after a quick dummy to go down the line, he slid a ball infield to Reus 25 yards from goal and with a small pocket of space in which to operate.

Our German star punished them. His first touch turned him towards goal from the sideline, his second shifted the ball out of his feet, and his third sent a shot towards goal that set itself outside the far post, bent beyond the dive of the goalkeeper, and nestled in the back of the Real net. It was superb strike, Reus knew it, and the Arena erupted as we took the lead.

It was a lead we would carry to the final whistle, holding our visitors at arm’s length relatively comfortably. The best chance of the second half fell to Homero Cano making an appearance from the bench, but last year’s MLS Golden Boot somehow managed to fluff his line when presented with an open goal, and we had to settle for the single goal. Sassano had some work to do, but nothing too taxing for our designated cup goalkeeper, and before too long Andrew Perez had the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup in his hands.

The celebrations went on long into the night - we had 11 days before our next match, so the lads deserved the chance to let their hair down - and the following day Haneuer issued a statement to the media thanking me for the victory and hoping it would be the first of many trophies under my management. It was a nice touch, and not something he had to do.

So, when English Championship side West Bromwich Albion contacted Dean to sound me out about their vacant managerial post - they sat 19th yet harboured Premier League ambitions - it did not take me long to say no. Life, as they say, was good.

Edited by EvilDave

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Our next encounter, a trip down south to Chivas USA, brought more mixed emotions. On the one hand, goals from Camacho and Cano saw us ease to a 2-0 win against a team who had given us problems this season, denying our hosts the chance to go top of the Western Conference. With the three points in the bag, we were just one more victory away from clinching our conference title.

On the other hand, Chicago Fire’s win over Toronto FC meant that we were no longer able to overhaul them at the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings. The Fire had maintained their form over the whole season and were deserved winners, claiming the Champions League spot that came with top dog status. Of course, it meant little unless they won through the play-offs, but it was a target we could no longer hit.

Our final two games of the season were also on the road, staying south to take on Dallas before coming closer to home for one last dance with the Portland Timbers. We knew we needed just one win from two to seal top seeding in the Western play-offs, and so it was a huge relief when a single strike from Cano earned us the victory at our first attempt. We could travel to Portland with no pressure, simply trying to carry our momentum into the post-season series.

The win that followed was almost embarrassingly easy. Matt Lawton was the unlikely scorer of our first goal after just six minutes, finding himself the furthest man forward after bombing on from his full-back position and finishing with all the composure of one of our strikers. Midway through the first half, Cacau reminded everyone of his prowess with a dead ball, whipping a vicious free-kick beyond the goalkeeper and into the back of the net, and the points were as good as ours.

There were still more goals to come however, both of which would fall to the boot of Jon Shannon. First an instinctive flick of the boot turned in a cross from Lawton on the right flank, and then a late penalty after Reus was felled in the area. For the Timbers fans - particularly those who stayed to watch us presented with the Cascadia Cup - it must have been a galling afternoon, but for me and my players, it was a great  boost of confidence heading into the play-offs.

We would, of course, be seeded first in the Western Conference, courtesy of a 24-4-9 record over the course of the season. Following us into the post-season in second and thirds respectively would be Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA, while the wildcard place would be contested by Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes.

Over in the East, Supporters’ Shield holders Chicago Fire led the conference in, followed at a distance by DC United and Columbus Crew. The latter had put together a late run to pip Toronto FC, who would take on Montreal Impact in a Canadian clash for the final play-off spot.

Those wildcard play-offs took place on consecutive days to round out October, with Colorado and Montreal winning through to crush the dreams of San Jose and Toronto. We would take on the Rapids over two legs for a place in the final, and our path to glory was now much clearer. We, and everybody else still involved, were just five matches away from the MLS Cup. We knew what we had to do.

Edited by EvilDave

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We hit the road to Colorado with bad news ringing in our ears - Jackie had been taken back into hospital, and it was unlikely she was going to be coming out. Chris had, understandably, stayed at home with his wife, and it was likely to be the last time he came out on the road with us. Rachel was with him, but there was no way the owners would let me stay behind. Not in the play-offs.

Sadly, business was business, and that meant overcoming the Rapids despite awful personal news affecting everyone. Jon Shannon had been one of those worst hit by Chris’ circumstances as one of our technical director’s closest friends at the club, and so it was a surprise when he told me he was ready to start. It was even more of a surprise when he turned in a superb performance, opening the scoring after six minutes and neglecting to celebrate in recognition of his good friend.

Whatever the emotions running through people’s heads, there was simply no excuse for the goal that brought Colorado level. Camacho, retaining his place in defensive midfield after a strong performance in his last outing, played a blind ball home to Tierney, only to find his goalkeeper several yards out of position. Julio Gimenez snaffled the loose ball and slotted into the abandoned goal, and our lead had lasted just five minutes.

As the Rapids poured forwards, I wondered whether this whole year had simply been building up to a tragic conclusion. Our spectacular form, Chicago’s late run, Jackie’s cancer, and now a Colorado team hellbent on causing us as many problems as they could. For the best part of 15 minutes it was a training game, attack against defence as they swarmed towards our goal. Tierney justified his position with three world class saves in the space of a minute as the hosts somehow failed to put the ball in the net. And then we scored.

Having committed so many men forward, and at such an early stage in the game, Colorado simply didn’t have the men back to deal with Reus’ clipped ball into the left channel. They weren’t ready for Cacau to be onto it at the pace he was, and they certainly weren’t equipped to cope with his low, curling cross towards the penalty spot. With no defender within five yards of him, Valdez had the time to control the pass and then stroke it calmly into the bottom corner, giving the goalkeeper the eyes and sending him hopelessly the wrong way. From disaster to triumph, and in some style.

There was no urgent news from Seattle at the interval - Chris said Jackie had been brought in early as a precaution, and that he would be staying with her as much as he could over the coming days - and so it was full focus required for the remaining 45 minutes. I knew my counterparty in the home dressing room would be advocating a bombardment similar to the one we weathered in the first half, and I knew that we could not afford to let a lead slip from this position. We had to stay in control.

We did more than that. Shannon had performed admirably for a man sharing the grief of a friend, but as soon as he had crossed the white line he had become a man possessed. Chris was a friend, but he was also a Sounder, and that seemed to be the line that my international striker was playing. Doing his bit for the team came naturally and, with 20 minutes remaining in an even second half, he fired home the goal that all but secured our place in the conference finals.

Four days later, back on home soil, we guaranteed it. Four unanswered goals flew past a despondent Colorado outfit who gave up after the first, and by a massive 7-1 aggregate we had earned the right to play for the Western Conference title. There, as comfortable favourites, we would face Real Salt Lake, who overturned a 1-0 defeat on the road by beating Chivas USA 3-1 at home to set up a two-legged repeat of the Open Cup final. Three games to go.

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